Earlier this summer, Tiffanee Neighbors enrolled in a course at the National Women's Business Center in Washington to learn the basics of launching a business. After putting in 50-hour workweeks as a business development specialist for an information technology company, she dragged herself to class and through the weekly homework assignments. Thirteen weeks later, she walked away with a certificate for completing the class.
Then the real lessons began.
The 31-year-old Gaithersburg resident soon found herself locked in e-mail negotiations with a man in California who owned the domain name she had chosen for her Web-based personal shopping business, Shopology.
Friends told her to offer the lowest amount for the site, "but he wasn't going for it," Neighbors said. In the end, she had to fork over more than $1,000 to claim the name of her choice.
The squabble was just one pitfall on the way to turning a hobby -- in Neighbors's case, being a personal shopper for friends and associates -- into a business.
It was the kind of twist that her instructors at the National Women's Business Center, all of whom are small-business owners, had warned her about. And the sort of thing that made Neighbors grateful that she had taken the course, which costs $495 and offers its students primers on such small-business basics as how to keep records, how to hire a lawyer and how to build a relationship with a bank.
Neighbors doesn't seem like she would need to take such a class. She is used to writing business plans as a business development specialist for a $7 billion information technology company and a former saleswoman for Oracle Corp. She is also a faithful subscriber to business magazines. But she said she wasn't quite prepared for what life would be like "when everything is on your shoulders. . . . You take for granted all that corporate support."
Many of the 600-plus graduates of the National Women's Business Center's Up and Running program for budding entrepreneurs are lawyers and MBAs. "We get MBAs all the time," training director Norene Elverrillo said. What they learn in business school "is all theoretical," she said. "They need practical information."
Since the center, a nonprofit organization founded in 1996 that is partly funded by the Small Business Administration's Office of Women's Business Ownership, began offering the program, students have come in with a wide range of ideas, Elverrillo said. Examples include a truck stop in Southern Maryland, an errand service that hires out personal assistants to busy professionals and an art gallery.
The course prepares entrepreneurs to keep a business running for at least 18 months.
Elverrillo said there is no guessing which ones will take off. One of the recent success stories is Herbal Animals, a company that makes pillows people can put over their eyes to help them sleep. The other is a sleep lab where people can spend the night while being monitored for sleep apnea.
Many of the businesses that come out of Up and Running started out as hobbies.
Neighbors's Shopology is an extension of her off-hours preoccupation with dressing style-challenged friends and acquaintances. In the course of her sideline work, she said, she found that people were always looking for alternatives to chain stores. So she came up with the idea for an online resource that would direct people to local boutiques and services as well as provide reviews of their offerings. The site would generate revenue through ads from boutique owners, who don't have many inexpensive channels for marketing.
Kathy Atkinson, owner of All About Jane, a women's boutique with locations in Adams Morgan and Arlington, is Neighbors's ideal advertiser. Atkinson said Neighbors's concept has potential. Her store puts forth a modest marketing effort on its Web site, in one local print publication and through direct mail. "We don't have a real big advertising budget," Atkinson said. Whether she would advertise on Neighbors's site "will really depend on how big the draw is and how expensive it is."
Business owners just starting out have been more receptive to Neighbors's idea. Regina Brown is looking to expand her interior design business, which she runs while holding down a day job as a computer saleswoman.
If her November launch is well received, Neighbors said, she has her own modest plans for expansion, such as moving out of her home office to a spot in one of the county's business incubators.
In the meantime, Neighbors has something she needs to take care of: "I'm trademarking the name."